October 1, 2018
A Whole New Ball Game
Photos Katie Takes a Picture
Former Rugby League star Matt Adamson had what many would consider the perfect life; the fast cars, the healthy bank balance, the fame and glory of a brilliant sporting career. But it didn’t come without a price to his health and his family. The father-of-three opens up about his remarkable journey that has shaped the man he is today.
Born and raised in Taree, New South Wales, Matt Adamson had what you would call a good country upbringing. Taught the importance of hard work and helping others from an early age, it was these values that stood him in good stead throughout his sporting career.
“I was made to work hard as a kid and my parents instilled good strong disciplines, it was part of our family culture,” says Matt.
“They would always encourage me to help others and give back. I watched my mum and dad give so much back to our small community as a kid, I think we have lost a lot of that sense of community unfortunately.”
Matt started his lucrative rugby career in 1990 as a fullback with Parramatta and finished with the Canberra Raiders in 2005. He played 157 games for Penrith with a total of 248 first class professional matches, which included a three-year stint with the Leeds Rhinos in the United Kingdom. Matt also made two State of Origin appearances for NSW in 2001 and played in the second row for Australia in the 1997 Super League Test series against Great Britain. Following his retirement from the game in 2005, Matt was offered the opportunity to work as a strength and conditioning coach with Les Catalan Dragons in Perpignan France. Twelve months later, he and his family moved to Australia where he landed a job as assistant first grade coach with the Penrith Panthers. He then moved to a presenting role with Fox Sports and Channel 7 on Weekend Sunrise, and also opened several of his own businesses.
“I’ve had an amazing career,” says Matt. “Rugby league can bring you a lot of joy but also a lot of heartache. I’ve been in the game for 28 years, 16 as a player and 12 as a coach.”
Matt’s move to Queensland came after a successful year as the Storm’s NYC head coach before accepting a role as the club’s Queensland coaching director of the Melbourne Storm. “That’s how we came to the Sunshine Coast, to set up a program at Kawana with the Sunshine Coast Falcons. A lot of the young guys playing for Melbourne now are kids I recruited and developed, I love watching them evolve,” says Matt.
“In rugby league, you have to be prepared to up and move, so my kids have lived in three countries and four states in the last 10 years and our family needed some stability so we bought a Queenslander at Peregian Beach and decided to make it home.”
But there is much more to Matt’s story than his successful rugby career. In fact, the end of his sporting career was really when his remarkable journey of self-discovery began.
Matt had just come out of a successful 16-year playing career when his eldest daughter Charlotte was diagnosed with alopecia (an autoimmune disorder that often results in permanent total hair loss) when she was just seven years old.
“One day you feel as though your whole world is in control and then something like that happens and it has such an impact,” says Matt. “Although it wasn’t life threatening, it was life changing and it had a massive impact on my wife Rebecca, still does, and a massive impact on me as her dad who wants to give his daughter everything, but can’t. It also really affected her siblings, and it is something we still have to live with today as a family.”
In an effort to raise awareness around the disorder and help others who were going through the same journey, Matt and Rebecca started the Princess Charlotte Alopecia Foundation.
“I was lucky at the time when we started the Princess Charlotte charity I had the rugby league family around me. We raised $350,000 and got the organisation up and running and it enabled us to buy wigs for kids.
“At the end of the day, I want to leave a legacy for my kids. I want them to say my dad was a giver who made a big difference to people’s lives. I reckon if I can do that and inspire the younger generation, I will be happy.”
“We soon realised there was a lack of virgin hair. It takes 14 kids with the same hair colour to make one wig, it’s like gold. So, we started Tresses for Princesses to raise awareness of the importance of donating hair and Stephanie Rice came on board as an ambassador and Mal Meninga, it was fantastic.”
Charlotte is now 18 with plans to become a school teacher and Matt couldn’t be prouder of the young woman she has become.
“I believe it’s happened for a reason,” says Matt. “The skills and the resilience it has given Charlotte will give her the strength to do something amazing in life. She has so many wonderful qualities. She will inspire others and I think one day she will be a great ambassador for alopecia awareness.”
Unfortunately, that is not where it ends when it comes to the heartache the Adamson family has endured. Their lives were turned upside down yet again when their middle child Milly was diagnosed with a serious heart condition.
“Milly was just nine years old when we almost lost her to a terrible heart condition,” says Matt. “Her heart rate went from a normal 80 or 100 beats per minute to 320. She was rushed to hospital and we discovered she had an irregular rhythm and an extra electrical pathway.
“Three years on it was having a massive impact on her life, stopping her from growing and maturing so they decided to operate. Thankfully, the 10-hour surgery was a success. She still has a few ups and downs but nothing like she used to. We are so thankful. It makes you realise what’s important in life, that’s for sure.
“We are lucky that both Bec and I have beautiful strong families. Having that nucleus around us during those hard times allows me to sit here and tell my story, there were times I thought enough is enough.”
Apart from the health issues his family have dealt with over the years, Matt has also faced his own share of personal challenges that really tested his strength of character and resilience. Ultimately it led him to seek spiritual healing, which changed his life and set him on a path to help others.
“After a coaching stint I went into restaurants,” says Matt. “I bought a 180-seat restaurant in Balmain. It was an industry where I could use my profile, where people knew who I was. It was a successful business but the cost was my relationship.
“You get caught up in the whole thing, but it’s all so surface, so fake. I would leave early and work until late seven days a week. I learnt a lot about myself and I learnt a lot about running a business, but I would also go to the cool room at 6pm and skull a six pack of Corona to get through the night. My wife caught me one night and said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ But it was the only way I was getting through. It was a big wake up call. I’m so thankful for my wife, she has been so supportive and stood by me through some pretty tough times.”
It was also around this time, that the Adamsons lost a relative in a tragic road accident that led them back to church where Matt found his salvation.
“I was going through such a hard time,” says Matt. “I stood there through the service with my three kids with this massive ego and a massive chip on my shoulder and at the end of the service they asked anyone who was doing it tough to come forward. At this stage, my marriage was not in good shape. Becky went forward and this bloke (the pastor) put his hands on her shoulders and all of a sudden, these tears just started coming down my cheeks.
“I thought, here is a woman I love, standing at that end of the room, and me, the man who was supposed to be her shining knight and protector at the other end. Before I knew it, I was standing next to her.
“He put his hands on my shoulder and said, ‘Life is going to be all good for you big fella’. It saved my life and I live life differently.
“That was a tough process. It was at that stage I took all the heartache I have had through my sporting life, being a dad, marriage, business life, all the challenges we all face, to realise that there is somebody always worse off than us. I thought if I could steer my attention to doing good by others, I could live a better life.”
Which is exactly what he did. In 2013, Matt became an ambassador for Destiny Rescue, an organisation dedicated to rescuing children from slavery and sexual exploitation. As a father of three daughters, it was an intensely challenging experience that completely changed his outlook on life yet again.
“I travelled to Thailand with Destiny Rescue in 2015. My role was to go in and earn the trust of young girls who had already been identified by the police or Destiny Rescue and gain their confidence over a few nights, knowing they were underage and knowing we had a pathway for those kids to get out of there.
“I went over there wanting to rescue every child I laid my eyes on. I thought I had an understanding of the situation, but once you are in the thick of it, it’s quite a different kettle of fish. It is so intense.
“We rescued a dozen or so kids in a short space of time. It destroyed me emotionally, six months later I had to seek help because of what I had seen. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I was struggling to cope with how we live knowing what is going on there. Slavery has become a big problem, not only overseas but in Australia too and it’s at its highest levels ever.”
Matt has now taken on a new role as the head coach of the Fiji National Rugby Team, a role he is thoroughly enjoying. Life is good. And while he is not currently an ambassador for Destiny Rescue, he intends to continue his work with the charity in the near future.
“At the end of the day, I want to leave a legacy for my kids. I want them to say, ‘My dad was a giver who made a big difference to people’s lives.’
“I reckon if I can do that and inspire the younger generation, I will be happy.”